Recovery & Restoration Methods for Endurance Athletes Part II: Cold Water Immersion

Time to relax!

Time to relax!

Post-workout nutrition was the focus of the last post.  Adequate intake of water, protein and simple carbohydrates is vital for repairing the body and preparing for subsequent endurance workouts.  We can add to the recovery strategy the use of cold water immersion.

“Cold water immersion resulted in significantly lower muscle soreness ratings; reduced inflammatory response and consequent muscle damage; and better repeat sprint ability and leg strength,” Jeremy Ingram, physiotherapist, in the J Sci Med Sport. 2009 May;12(3):417-21.

Injury treatment has long featured the application of ice to strains, sprains, bruises and other injuries where swelling is present.  Strenuous or long bouts of exercise can damage muscle cells thus resulting in conditions similar to injury such as low-grade swelling, pain, and nervous system disruption.  Studies by the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, the European Journal of Applied Physiology, the Journal of Sports Sciences,  show cold water bathing was well as hot/cold contrast bathing reduces these symptoms and helps speed recovery.

Protocols for cold water immersion and hot/cold contrast bathing are discussed here and here.  (The idea behind the contrast method is to create a pumping action in the capillaries to speed blood flow and thus increase the recovery process) Peak Performance Online offers this free download titled How to ensure a speedy recovery from exercise.  (Peak Performance Online features many free downloads on a wide variety of sporting topics.  Definitely pay them a visit if you want to read a lot more.)

The basic protocols for cold water and hot/cold contrast recovery vary but are fairly similar.  Here are two examples:

Cold Water Immersion
If you are going to try cool or cold water immersion after exercise, don’t overdo it. Ten minutes immersed in 50-60 degree Farenheit water should be enough time to get the benefit and avoid the risks. Because cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it’s a good idea to fully warm up about 30 to 60 minutes later with a warm shower or a hot drink.

Contrast Water Therapy (Hot-Cold Bath)
If you prefer alternating hot and cold baths, the most common method includes one minute in a cold tub (50-60 degrees Farenheit) and two minutes a hot tub (about 99-104 degrees Farenheit), repeated about three times.

My own cold-water recovery has employed two simple methods.  First, when I lived in Virginia I had access to a swimming pool in the summer.  Following a ride or run in the hot weather, I got in the pool, preferably in a shady area, and relaxed.  This past summer in Colorado, I filled my bathtub with cold water so that my legs were covered and I dumped in a small amount of ice.  It was cold but not painfully so.  I sat and drank Recoverite and an energy drink with caffeine.  I found the results very beneficial.

Speaking of caffeine, I’ll discuss that in Part III.

4 thoughts on “Recovery & Restoration Methods for Endurance Athletes Part II: Cold Water Immersion

  1. Which is worse: a bit of post-exercise soreness, or jumping into a freezing-cold bath immediately after working out? I’m not certain the cure is better than the malady!

    • Kyle

      That’s certainly one way to look at it! I don’t necessarily suggest submerging yourself into freezing water. Cool water probably works well. In my case, I alternate between a hot tub or sauna with aiming cold-as-I-can-stand-it water from a shower nozzle at my sore areas (usually my glutes/legs). That initial cold shock actually wears off fairly quickly. As I go from hot back to cold it actually feels pretty good. Also, there’s no way around it, cold water immersion is a lot more enjoyable in the summer.

  2. Kyle

    Well, that’s a good question. I think I’d start with a Google search. For practical purposes, I’d just use a bath tub full of cool or cold water.

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